Some big questions about masculinity are addressed with the minimum of staging, discovers Tim Cornwell
Angry Alan by Penelope Skinner, Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) ****
The Abode, Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) ***
Outside, Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) ***
Definition of Man, Greenside @ Infirmary Street (Venue 236) ***
Roger works as a third assistant store manager; he’s the guy you yell at when you’re riled up with a complaint, and he has to take it. He used to have a good job and a nice car with AT&T but those days are long gone. Wrapped in inadequacy and failure, he finds Angry Alan, a pioneer of the men’s rights movement, on YouTube, a prophet who leads this lost ram to his “red pill moment”.
When the Men’s Movement first emerged in the United States in the early 1990s, it took inspiration from books like Iron John, by poet Robert Bly. It was about men returning to their earthy roots, finding themselves again, drumming in the woods, and seemed holistic and harmless enough to get earnest cover stories in the mainstream US press.
Not so in Angry Alan; these days, it seems, they’re going to conferences that reinforce their prejudices and make them feel like they haven’t lost their jobs, where speakers denounce the “gynocratic” world where no-one listens to them, except maybe Donald Trump.
Angry Alan marks playwright Penelope Skinner’s welcome return to the Fringe with a brand-new show after nearly a decade. Her award-winning shows include The Village Bike and Linda at the Royal Court.
Skinner discovered the Men’s Movement in 2016; her American partner Donald Sage Mackay, playing Roger, lends an American verisimilitude to the piece. He is perfectly cast, adroitly capturing the character in the simplest staging, with YouTube videos on a screen behind, (the real thing, we’re told).
The ending of Angry Alan seemed too swift. But like the best work, helped by Mackay’s dead-straight portrayal, this piece asks plenty of questions. I wanted to know how people of different age and sex from me would react to it. Are Roger’s issues those of masculinity or mental health? Is he victim, as well as victimiser? As his mind blocks up with anger, as he obsesses with men’s liberation, he loses sight of the suffering or sympathy of others, such as his ex-wife, girlfriend, and son.
And one last question: when he takes comfort in a video that solemnly lists the great and good men of history, against his own descent into lonely anger, should we laugh?
With just one man and a screen, Angry Alan packs a giant punch.
There are lessons here for The Abode, which deploys a cast and crew in the same space on a scale to make a Fringe producer blench.
There are strong parallels: a frustrated American male, this time of student age, is tempted into the dark world of the web, this time through gaming.
Pepperdine University in Malibu, California is a private university affiliated with the Churches of Christ, with a staunch conservative reputation: Kenneth Starr, the lawyer who led the investigation into Bill Clinton, served as its dean.
So it is intriguing to see Pepperdine students plunging noisily into racial and sexual politics. At centre stage for the startlingly large ensemble cast is Samuel, a disenfranchised, dating-impaired, technologically-sidelined hotel clerk who is sucked down the rabbit-hole of the white supremacist game-world of The Abode.
With the help of German song, and the Council of Traditional Citizens, he is invited to fight for a white homeland. His descent into Hades, tempted by a pleasantly sinister ringmaster, with his loyal sister bent on reclaiming him, is efficiently if somewhat clunkily told. A loud Greek chorus declaims what might have been more sympathetically shown. Although there are plenty of good intentions, the play has too many declarative lines and pushes few envelopes very far.
By contrast, Clay Party’s play Outside is a three-hander that uses the intimacy of a tiny cellar space to the max, with a sharp script and close-up acting. Charlie Suff and Rosie Gray act out a domestic drama confined within a tiny flat, in the shadow of a city-wide curfew, driven by undefined “attacks” committed by men.
In a dead-end job, the male lead is practising a proposal for his pregnant girlfriend, but perhaps it’s about reclaiming her before she escapes, rather than doing the right thing. Written by Edward Stone, who plays a desperate witness to this dying relationship, it is complex, convincing and funny. Directed by Josh Green, the show is supported by Pleasance Futures.
Outside is nominally set in the UK. As the players wait for the curfew to end, wading through bottles of drink, there’s an apocalyptic edge. Likewise in Definition of Man, we’re not sure if we’re witnessing the end of the world, or just the end of a relationship.
Playing XX, and XY, Nikki Muller and Jason Rosario, in threadbare khaki and mucky faces, might be the only boy and only girl left standing; a wind is blowing, and they could blow away with it. They miss bread and ice-cream, beer and showers, but meanwhile they’re dealing with distance and miscommunication with each other. She’s quoting philosophers and writers on relationships in telling quotes; he’s tired of words. As she tries to soothe his anger, their relationship plays out in rugged acrobatic dance moves.
As with Outside, the quality of writing, thought and performance going into the show by newer companies in these small Fringe spaces is a pleasure to see. Definition of Man masters its literary allusions well, in a thought-provoking and engaging piece.
One passing observation: if stage choreography demands that you act on the floor, people in the third row can’t see you. Venues are challenging, the clock is ticking on get-ins and get-outs, but always try and check the sight-lines. A basic Fringe rule, and often forgotten, in the view of this Angry Alan. If you must disappear, at the very least raise your voice for those craning their necks.
• Angry Alan, until 26 August, 3:20pm. The Abode, until 16 August, 12:30pm. Outside, until 27 August, 3:30pm. Definition of Man, until 25 August, 11:25am.